(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

(continues from here

Did grandma’s plane land or what?

You are at the airport, waiting for some relative to land, when all of a sudden the monitor listing all incoming flights goes crazy, filling itself with small boxes and tiny error sequences. Did it ever happen to you? This accident is so common that there even is an online picture gallery entirely devoted to it.

Another gallery shows the same thing happening on many other devices you use every day, including a McDonald’s drive-thru. Very often what is happening is the same thing as in the previous example: somebody bought general purpose, unnecessarily expensive computers and software to display a few lines of static text. But it’s no problem, is it? After all, it’s passengers who pay for it, and who cares about reliable airplane schedules anyway?

Don’t let this pass

If expensive computers are purchased (with your money!) in cases like this, it may be because somebody was fooled by some colorful brochure saying “Nothing free is valuable, our software is the most expensive so it must be the best, too bad it runs only on the newest computers, just pay”. In short, the next time check and require that they explain to you just how much of your fees comes from this attitude. Remember that the same kind of tax is hidden in almost every service you use: driver’s licenses, insurances, birth certificates, schools, parcel services… if it’s done using software, it is likely costing more than it could. Luckily, better solutions, feasible in many real world cases are already available.

How can this be possible?

What exactly is it that makes it possible for software to remain more expensive than hardware, and much less open to free competition? Why can’t we (or our governments…) shop for cheaper computers and programs just like we already do with clothes, groceries and screwdrivers? The answer is that all those goods and their providers have no “history”: they don’t remember where they came from, and the same happens with what we do with those goods. A screwdriver will work no matter where the screws were bought. If you stop going to the same grocery store where you shopped for ten years because a cheaper one opened around the corner, the food you bought at the old place is still edible, and can be mixed with the one you’ll buy next week.

Software instead, if chosen and used improperly, is just like nuclear power plants, which remain dangerous even after you’ve stopped using them. A school can change its paper provider without any compatibility problems, but if it changed computer software without thinking and planning very carefully for it, it would stop working literally overnight. In addition to that, bad software is dangerous also because it can force others to use and pay for it even when they would prefer another program.

The exact reasons why this happens are explained, together with the solutions in another section of the book. For now, it is enough to remember that software, unlike most other goods and services that everybody must use, has much more power to perpetuate and impose itself, and this is the reason why it is so abused and expensive.